February 10th, 2008


Getting to Gehenna

While I didn't know that much about the book of Acts, it turns out that I'd heard some of the individual stories in song, like the one about Peter and John healing the lame beggar, and the angel busting Paul and Silas out of jail. There are actually at least three angelic jailbreaks in the book. Must have been a pretty common occupation for angels at the time. Paul manages to become the central figure in the book, essentially hijacking early Christianity from the people who actually knew Jesus during his earthly lifetime. He seems to be a classic case of a 180-degree turn, changing from a zealous persecutor of Christians to a zealous promoter of the same. Also interesting in light of the current American administration's God-and-big-business philosophy is how the early Christian leaders were so devoted to communism that a couple was struck down dead for keeping some of the money from the sale of their property. And an oddity of the style in Acts is that, starting with Chapter 16, there are occasional shifts into the first person.

It's interesting that the idea of eternal life for the faithful in Heaven seems to have been accompanied by the belief in eternal damnation. This is by no means consistent throughout the Bible; a lot of passages seem to suggest that the sinful just die, and that's it. The idea of a place of eternal punishment seems like it could well have come from the Greek Tartarus, with Sisyphus' boulder, Tantalus' inability to eat or drink, and all that kind of stuff. It's no wonder that, when Dante came up with his version of Hell that details the everlasting punishments of everyone from murderers and thieves to people who wear their underwear inside out (I think the latter are punished with permanent wedgies), he fills it with Greek monsters. I get the impression that Tartarus was only for the very worst sinners, though. The belief that you have to be REALLY bad to end up in Hell seems not to be all that uncommon. The Apocalypse of Peter, which was sort of the predecessor to Dante's Inferno, says that it's possible to get out of Hell. There was a History Channel special that mentioned that the Islamic take on Hell is also that it's temporary. Catholics have the concept of Purgatory, where people are able to pay for their sins before getting into Heaven. On the other hand, the Jack Chick school of fundamentalism teaches that Hell is the default destination for everybody (except possibly unborn babies, which makes me wonder why they're opposed to abortion, since Chick at least seems to think it's a surefire ticket to salvation). I've seen a few fundamentalist arguments comparing Hell to a parent punishing a child, insisting that it's the Right Thing To Do, which is pretty ridiculous. As I see it, the purpose of punishment is to teach a lesson, and hopefully to serve as a deterrent against future bad behavior. It isn't the Right Thing To Do in and of itself, but a method intended to promote doing the right thing. If the punishment for sin is eternal, it doesn't really work as a deterrent, does it?